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Tales of the anti-Clinton Catholic media ‘mafia’


I may or may not have met Bill Clinton 30 years ago. I do not remember. We overlapped at Georgetown, where I was a newly ordained faculty member in residence from 1967 to 1969, while getting my PhD at George Washington University. I was also an adviser to one of the student newspapers, The Voice, and official adviser to the “Yard,” the student government. It was the height of the Vietnam conflict, and students who might be conscientious objectors often came to talk it out with me.

But as I read the Starr Report and watched the president’s grand jury testimony, I had the odd sense that I was finally meeting him -- seeing the real man masked all these years by both the image-making genius of his staff, and also seeing, as portrayed by his biographer, the wounded, fatherless, survivalist child who will do and say anything to get us to give him a hug.

A recent line among media-watchers is that Clinton, if he tumbles, will have been done in by the “Catholic media mafia,” a community of pundits driven by harsh Catholic morality to score on a Protestant backslider. Eric Alterman calls this “moral absolutism” in The Nation, building on a piece by William Powers, a Roman Catholic, in the National Journal.

Cokie Roberts, a former Commonweal Washington correspondent, who has received honorary degrees from a string of Jesuit universities, wrote a column urging Clinton to pray about his own condition and then address the American people. Jesuit-educated NBC’s Tim Russert has relentlessly pursued the Lewinsky case on “Meet the Press.” Holy Cross graduate and Peace Corps alumnus, fast-talking Chris Matthews, host of the nonstop anti-Clinton CNBC “Hardball,” reminded his guest, poor old Clinton defender Leon Panetta, that they were both trained by nuns and Jesuits and had “standards” by which Clinton should be judged.

Matthews told the National Journal that as an idealist he had supported Clinton, but that Clinton had adopted the values of Santa Monica, “O.J. land.” Catholics have to constantly re-examine their own behavior and take responsibility for it, he said. Clinton should “be guilty once in a while.” National Journal writer Michael Kelly, who lost his job as New Republic editor because of his fixation on Clinton, explored Clinton’s moral relativism in a Washington Post column, structured on the Creed at Mass: “I believed the president ... “

Former Jesuit (and former NCR columnist) Gary Wills, in a Time essay, recently called for Clinton’s resignation for reasons advanced in this space six months ago. And Maureen Dowd, with her Irish name and Catholic University of America education, the New York Times’ idea of a Catholic op-ed columnist, has skinned the hide off Bill, Monica and Hillary so thoroughly that there’s nothing left but their bones. On the “Lehrer News Hour,” Paul Gigot and Notre Dame’s Mark Shields, both Catholics, have been moderate but consistent Clinton critics.

If this constitutes the “Catholic” response to this issue, it may signify a new stage in the church’s development: Lay persons, in the hierarchy’s silence, are passing the moral judgments, which a generation ago might have come from the pulpit.

Why has the hierarchy been silent? Cardinal John O’Connor, reacting to the Starr report, called Clinton’s behavior “unspeakable,” but went on to talk about partial-birth abortion. Perhaps it’s a Catholic sense of human frailty or perhaps the pedophilia scandals have weakened their moral authority in talking about sex.

Over 120 secular newspapers have called for Clinton’s resignation, but the Catholic opinion journals have not focused on this issue. NCR has had two editorials (Sept. 11, Sept. 25), both pointing to more grievous social sins, neither calling for resignation. America (Sept. 12) conceded that adultery and lying were wrong but simply urged Clinton to “[g]o to work and sin no more.” Commonweal (Sept. 11) broke a long silence with a super-long editorial that came right to the brink of calling for resignation and backed off -- for now.

The most passionate statement by a Catholic appeared in the very non-Catholic New Republic (Sept. 14 and 21) by former editor, Catholic, gay, HIV-positive writer Andrew Sullivan: “ ... with Clinton, the lies about sex are not exceptions to the general rules; they are the rule. They are a seamless piece with his lies about virtually everything else. ... [H]e can go to gay fund-raisers and NOW rallies and Bosnia itself and pretend he is still a crusader for morality, civil rights and peace, all the while corrupting anyone who comes into contact with him along the way.”

On “Meet the Press,” Tim Russert asked Congressman David Bonior, who had studied for the priesthood, whether the president should take a few months off and get therapy for “his problem.” Sure enough, within the week, Clinton had appointed three evangelical ministers as spiritual advisers.

Meanwhile, if Clinton comes before the Judiciary Committee, he will be eye-to-eye -- both with specks and planks -- with Catholic, fellow-Georgetown alumnus, Henry Hyde.

Relatively few people look better naked than clothed. The Starr report and the Republican demand that we see the videotape of Clinton’s grand jury testimony were calculated to have us see the president naked. It is as if we had accidentally stumbled into his bedroom in the morning as he staggered out of the bathroom, the roar of the toilet flushing in the background.

One response to the report is to blame Starr for writing a dirty book. But, compared to what is already available in your basic movie theater or newsstands, this is cold soup. The report and testimony are not pornography. Pornography is meant to delight. Reading and viewing these documents has had the unintended effect of making the president of the United States appear, if not sympathetic, at least pathetic. Its impact is not shock but sadness. He comes on sometimes clever, dignified and firm, but then he’s like a stray dog with big eyes, covered with ticks and fleas, who has wandered into our yard. You don’t want to kick him but you don’t want to let him into the house.

These documents also demonstrate that there is no such thing as only sex. The seemingly private touch between two people -- however well-or-mismatched -- touches everyone who loves, hates or believes in them. To her, he was a prize to be won and talked about. To him, she was Kleenex, a moment of relief to be used, lied to and thrown away. We always knew that. She does now.

And if our paths never crossed at Georgetown 30 years ago and if I never got to know a future president of the United States when he was 20, after reading all this stuff and watching the tapes of his testimony, I have a sense of knowing him now -- still morally and emotionally the same age he was then.

Jesuit Fr. Raymond A. Schroth is assistant dean of Fordham College, Rose Hill campus.

National Catholic Reporter, October 9, 1998